This post is about a recent very painful event in my life and my experience dealing with that pain. There is a lot going on in the world right now and a lot of people are feeling a lot of heavy emotions for various reasons. My intention is not to add to this heaviness, but to be honest about something that has been challenging for me and hopefully bring some light to others who are also feeling sad, for whatever reason.
Part of me didn’t want to post this because I keep telling myself that others are suffering more than I am. But regardless of what any of us are feeling, every single one of us has felt pain and sorrow and there is no use comparing whose is worse or more justified. It is only through giving empathy to ourselves that we learn to give empathy to others and it is only through sharing our stories that we learn we are not alone.
So, here goes.
Two and a half weeks ago, the man who for the last 10 months I thought was the love of my life decided that he no longer wanted to be in a relationship. The details are not important, but suffice it to say it was a complete shock and the aftermath has been one of the most challenging and painful times of my life. I’m doing much better now than I was when it first happened and I first started writing this, but it’s been a long slow process and I have a long way to go.
I decided to write about this for a few reasons. One is that I find writing to be incredibly therapeutic and a great way to organize the thoughts that are constantly bouncing around aimlessly in my mind. But another big one is that sadness and loneliness can feel so incredibly isolating, especially in these days of quarantine when it is easy to feel even more lost and disconnected than usual. I want to share my experience of grief because I know I am not the only one who is sad right now and I want others to know that they don’t have to go through it alone. Whoever you are, I want you to know that you have a choice in how you experience your pain, even when it feels like all of your choices have been taken away and you have no say in the matter.
For me, it has been very healing to hear others’ stories of grief and heartbreak, to know that I am not the only person who has ever felt this way, to see that it is possible to make it through to the other side. So I hope if you are experiencing any of this right now that my story may resonate with you in some way and you will perhaps feel just a tiny bit less alone. And if you feel like you have nobody to talk to, please consider reaching out to me and I will be happy to hold space for you and listen.
Readjusting and reaching out
For the first ten days or so after this break up, I involuntarily started each morning with the same thought: “He broke up with me”. It became the foundation upon which I built each day, a constant reminder, lest I forget for a moment the awful truth and dare to believe we were still happy together.
“He broke up with me” is a new reality I am still constantly having to readjust to, a truth so incomprehensible and disparate from what I so recently believed to be true that it still feels at times impossible to wrap my head around. I can feel these two contradictory ideas competing with each other for space in my mind; one in which I am building the life of my dreams with the partner I have given my heart to so completely, and another in which I am alone.
Of course, I understand logically that I am not alone. I am one of the least alone people I have ever known. I have spent 32 years cultivating, growing, and nurturing a vast array of meaningful connections and relationships. Friends and chosen family, all with varying depths of roots, like plants in a wild and abundant garden, filling different roles and niches in my ecosystem. I have cared for and tended to each one of them over the years and they have provided me with so much sustenance in return.
And thank goodness, because I need them all now, every single one.
Never before have I drawn on my social network so deeply and I find myself now reaching out to people I haven’t talked to in years, grasping at any chance to connect and be heard. Never have I so desperately wanted to fill every second of my day with something other than solitude. Because in solitude, there is nothing to distract me. Nothing to keep my thoughts from spiraling to the darkest and most heart-wrenching places. Nothing to take the place of the pain that pervades me so deeply in my heartbreak and saturates my entire being with loss and mourning.
When I am alone, I feel so trapped in my own mind, with nowhere to escape to that feels safe. And so I find myself reaching out to my support network and asking for help wherever I can, a skill I have honed over many years which has served me well these past couple of weeks. When I feel unable to be alone with my thoughts, it is in connection that I find safety. The more I reach out, the more the many hands and voices and hearts weave themselves together and form a net into which I can allow myself to fall, knowing that I will be held and loved and accepted in my grief.
I have learned that almost everyone is willing to offer love and support if you are willing to ask for it. I have learned that a few minutes of conversation can be enough to lift you out of the deepest despair, if only for a moment. I have learned that it is much better for the soul to cry in front of a friend than it is to cry alone. I have learned that when someone reaches out to ask how you are, it is ok to tell them the truth and to ask for their time and energy.
When we can be honest about what we are feeling and what we need, we allow others to shine and do what humans do best. Humans are amazing creatures with immense capacities for compassion. We are here to live in connection, to support and love one another, to make space for grief and to create opportunities for joy to make the grief a little more bearable.
One day at a time
This is how I have spent the last few weeks, connecting with friends, sharing my sorrows, laughing and crying together, slowly stitching my heart back together. When I find myself longing for the relationship, longing for the life I thought I was going to have with this person, I remind myself to come back to my breath and focus on the present moment. When I find myself worrying about the future and how hard it will be when we run into each other at social gatherings, I remind myself to take it one day at a time and leave those concerns for later. When I find myself wondering what I did wrong or how I could have changed or made things better before they got to this point, I remind myself that this was his choice and it has everything to do with where he is at in his life right now and nothing to do with my worthiness as a partner.
I think this is one of the hardest parts of grief – time travel. We are constantly taking ourselves back in time, wishing for a do-over, playing through scenarios that may have led to a better outcome. Or moving forward in time, worrying about what the future will bring, or hoping for some miracle to take away our pain. No matter what the situation, we always want to look for some aspect of it that we could have seen coming or controlled.
But most of the time, there isn’t. Even if there is something that we very clearly could have done differently, that isn’t what happened, so why keep ourselves stuck in the past? We have a tendency to torture ourselves as if we are stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, reliving the same day over and over trying to somehow get it right and cause a different outcome. But in the end, the outcome never changes because we can’t change the past.
So I am doing my best to stop time traveling. When I catch myself running through all the ways in which things could have gone differently, I pause and bring myself back to the present moment and focus on the things that are still true.
I am still in nursing school, on my way to a career that I love. I am still living in a beautiful city with at least a few months of sunshine ahead of me. I still get to visit Portland for all of August and see my amazing friends there. I still have a wonderful community of friends all over the world who have shown up for me in such beautiful ways these past few weeks. I am still a pretty badass human being and I am still worthy of love and connection.
Grief is like a wild animal
In the days following the break-up, I did my best to accept it with understanding and grace, but I was also angry and hurt and confused. I wrote emails and asked questions and held on to a hope that some grievous error had been made and would swiftly be rectified, even after he said he felt the chances of us getting back together were slim. I said and did everything I could think of to make it better, to offer him a way back to me, to convince him that we were still right for each other. I talked to friends who had gone through breakups and gotten back together and convinced myself that maybe this was just a hiccup on the road to happily ever after.
But in the end it became painfully clear that he wasn’t lost, or confused, as much as I wanted to believe that he was. He knew what he wanted and that simply wasn’t me anymore.
It’s an awful realization, knowing that the person you are hopelessly in love with doesn’t feel the same way. I don’t want to feel it. I want some sort of short-cut, a strategy to bypass the pain. I’m sure I am not alone in this desire. But unfortunately, there isn’t one. You can numb the pain in a million different ways, but we all know that that doesn’t really work in the long run.
I learned a long time ago that the only way to heal from heartbreak is to move through it. You have to allow yourself to feel it as completely as possible, even when it feels like it might tear you apart. Even when you feel you will never run out of tears and all you want is to scream as loudly as you can while begging for it all to go away, for it to be a terrible nightmare or some cruel joke, anything except what it really is – the truth. Even this must be felt, because you are a human being and grief is a part of life.
In my experience, grief is like a wild animal, lashing out and latching onto anything it can get its claws on one minute, and then turning into a simpering meek little kitten the next, licking its wounds and shrinking into the corner. You can try to ignore it, to push it deep down inside the darkest corners of your heart, but it won’t go away. It may become dormant for a time, but some day, something will happen that will shake the bars of its cage free once more and it will roar back to life, causing even more damage than it did before.
Only by embracing and making space for this poor, wretched creature can we possibly come to let go and accept what has happened. It is only through bringing our pain out into the light and holding it tenderly that we can begin to truly heal. Imagine how you would treat a scared wild animal that is longing to be held and loved and try to treat your pain in the same way. As you learn to invite your pain in, to sit with it in silence, to create a loving container for it, to connect with it instead of distancing yourself from it, you may find that you learn to love both your pain and yourself a little more kindly.
Suffering is not something to be hidden away and ashamed of. It is a part of every human life, big and small. What is the point of this life if not to experience the full and varied range of human emotion as deeply and as completely as possible? To climb to the peaks of the highest joys and to swim in the valleys of the deepest loss and to know that through it all, we are still alive. The impermanence of it all is what makes it so beautiful and so imperative that we make the most of our brief time on this planet.
Was it all worth it?
Through all of this, there is one question that I keep coming back to: “Was it all worth it?” In the midst of such deep sorrow, it can feel impossible to find meaning in the pain and the hurt that feels so all-consuming. The thought of erasing the entire experience, whatever it was, is so tempting because it seems to offer such sweet relief. It reminds me of the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, in which Kate Winslet’s character chooses to have her memory purged so that she can go on with her life, blissfully unaware of the pain and suffering brought on by a failed romance.
While I can certainly relate to this desire, I know that in the end, I couldn’t possibly wish to forget falling in love. It is an experience I have longed for my entire life and it was even more beautiful that I thought it could be. It may not have turned out as I had hoped, but for ten long months, I got to experience the feeling of being completely and utterly enamored with another person who felt the same way, and it was truly wonderful. There were nights when I would lay in bed and feel my entire being suffused with the almost unbearable sweetness of knowing that my love and I had found each other and that we were going to spend our lives together. How could I possibly wish to give that up?
Too often, we allow the end of something to dictate how we feel about the rest of it, but I am doing my best not to fall into that trap. I don’t want to allow the fact that my partner changed his mind to negate everything beautiful that came before that. I never dreamed I would find a relationship into which I could pour myself so willingly and so completely. We had a beautiful, loving, kind, fun relationship and we were wonderful to each other. I learned so much about love and partnership and I grew a lot in those ten months. Never before have I allowed another human being to inhabit my heart in such a loving and trusting way. I feel so lucky to have had that experience.
As sad as I feel to have lost that, I have absolutely no regrets because I know that I held nothing back and gave everything I had to give. I have learned what it is to be wildly, helplessly, head over heels in love and now that I know what that feels like, I know I can find it again.
One word that has come into my mind a lot in the past few days and has brought me solace is the word surrender. Letting go of this relationship and allowing myself to imagine a different future than the one I thought I would have is the biggest act of surrender I can imagine right now, but what other choice do I have? I can kick and scream and fight against the relentless current pulling me forwards, but it doesn’t change what happened.
As much as I yearn to be back in his arms, to be that person I was six months ago, or even three weeks ago, who was still so in love and so unaware of what was coming, I can’t move backwards. I can only move forwards, taking it one day at a time, learning to adjust to my new reality and find gratitude for the many things that are still true and beautiful in my life. What other choice do I have? What other choice do any of us have?
There are things I can control and things I can not. For me, surrendering is about learning the difference between these two things and accepting what I can not change. I can’t control how this other person feels about me and what they have decided they want or do not want from our relationship. But I can control the stories I tell myself around this experience and the meaning I give it for myself. I can choose to see it as a beautiful interlude in my life, for which I am incredibly grateful, and that is the reality I am doing my best to hold onto right now.
Some days are better than others. It’s been over two weeks now and the pain has faded somewhat from a sharp stabbing intensity to a dull throbbing ache. In some moments, I feel normal and happy and hopeful. Other times, I feel filled with despair and frustration, angry that “everyone else” gets to have that thing I so desperately want but can’t seem to hold onto: a loving partner to build and share a life with. Of course, I know realistically that many people never find such a relationship, which makes it all the more saddening that I had one slip through my fingers.
But overall, it is an upward trend and each day, it gets a little easier than the last. There are dips here and there, even within one day, but I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that with a combination of time, self love, and connection, I will continue to heal.
Making space for something new
A few nights ago, it was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. My evening began like any other – I got home after a long day on my feet, flopped onto my bed, and sobbed into my pillow. Two weeks post break-up, I was still in the phase of allowing myself to cry whenever I wanted to and giving that wild animal inside me free reign to thrash and rage until it tired itself completely out so that I could move on with my day.
And then, as I dried my tears and brought myself back to my surroundings, I decided that it was time to move on. The summer solstice seemed like as good a time as any to let go of the past and make a fresh start.
I gathered up the few remaining items of his that I still had in my room and chucked them into the garbage. I hung up my clean laundry, vacuumed the floor, and made my bed. Then I opened up the windows, put on one of my favourite Rising Appalachia songs – “Resilient” – and made my way slowly around my room with a smoldering stick of palo santo, a type of wood from South America that is used for healing and energetic cleansing. Finally, I sat in meditation for a few minutes and focused on letting go of the past, making space for new experiences.
I know that I will still feel sad for a while. I know that my little cleansing ritual hasn’t completely rid my body and heart of the pain that this breakup has caused. I know there will be good days and bad days and there will still be times when I feel hopeless or lost or long for the past. I know that letting go takes time and doesn’t happen all at once, just because you decide you don’t want to feel this way anymore.
But I am giving myself permission now to stop holding on as tightly as I was to the future I thought I would have and to make space for something new. I am reminding myself that a year ago, my life was completely different and my ex and I hadn’t even started dating yet. A year from now, who knows where I will be?
We all feel pain and we all suffer, but we don’t have to let it ruin our lives. Rather than choosing to believe that everything is terrible and you will never be happy, why not choose a story that helps you heal and grow and move on? And remember: you are resilient.